Friday, January 29, 2010

get between black men and their children

This is a guest post by Big Man, who blogs at Raving Black Lunatic, where this piece originally appeared.

She came from nowhere.

One moment there was empty space next to my left arm, and suddenly a medium-sized white girl appeared. She stood out in the ocean of chocolate surrounding me, not just because of her color, but because of how brazenly she approached me and how close she stood to me. Very strange behavior for a little white girl.

"Can I have a token," she asked.

I paused, quite uncomfortable and more than a little angry. Why was this child panhandling? Her query cut through the shrieks of delight and despair in the crowded room. It momentarily distracted me from the cloying aroma of fake cheese mixed ever so subtly with dirty diaper. She wanted a token, and she wasn't afraid to ask.

"I'm sorry, I only have tokens for him," I replied, with a nod towards my young son, perched atop a giant porcelain horse flapping the faux-leather reins and kicking the spotted horse's sides with his miniature brown cowboy boots.

My reply was classic passive-aggressive behavior, a tactic I picked up after years of encounters with professional panhandlers. I perfected it on the streets of Washington, D.C. as I dodged the throng of bums that gathered in front of the McDonald's near my dormitory. The secret is to give them answers they don't expect, to never appear angry or rude, and to keep moving.

But the little girl was slick. She wasn't distracted by my ploy.

"So you don't have anymore tokens," she said, taking another step towards the horse than my son was still enjoying.

"Well maybe I can just climb on behind him, I can fit," she said, as she touched the hard saddle and began to mount.

"No sweetheart, I don't think you can do that. He's riding it, and only one person is allowed," I replied, slowly feeling my anger, and a little bit of fear, blossom.

"Well, I can show him how to do it then, he has to press this, and grab these," the girl said grasping the reins my son held, and reaching across him to press a button designed to make the best leap.

Now, I'm truly disturbed. The girl's initial panhandling was a breach of etiquette, but now she's crossed over into another realm entirely. Yet, I'm a little unsure how to handle this situation.

Clearly she's encroaching on my territory and my son's fun, but how do I handle a young white child? We may have a black president, but this is still the South and a little white girl being disciplined by a big, black man could cause some difficulties...

Where are this child's parents? How could they allow her to become a token slave without stepping in? Dammit, things were already bad, now I have to deal with this crap?

I turn behind me looking for assistance, my face a mask of shock at the girl's brazen attitude. I see a black woman, short, heavyset, her hair caught up in that hard style that was popular when I was high school. She too is shocked at the girl, and we exchange looks that say everything that needs to be said about home training, but neither of us move towards the girl. Did I mention the little white girl had already pushed aside this woman's daughter who was waiting patiently for my son to finish his ride so that she could have her turn?

Another woman takes charge, her manner gruff, her words harsh.

"Hey you, little girl," the woman says, as she grabs the child's arm in a way I would have never been comfortable attempting. "You get down from there and get behind us. Behind us."

The woman is adamant that the little white girl move, I'm amused at her anger. She says in an aside to me and the other woman "What's wrong with her, like she can't see us."

My son's ride is over. He wants to go again, but I'm worried about these other parents waiting and the little white girl who begged me for a token. I take him down, he's disappointed, but obedient. I walk him away, asking him if he's ready to leave. A short tantrum issues, but I squelch it by reminding him that he can easily catch a whipping here, no matter what Chuck E. Cheese tells him about being happy. He relents, we prepare to leave, gathering up his cowboy hat and coat.

I look around as we head to the door. Children are screaming, parents are crammed in small booths hovering over sad pizza pies. A line stretches outside the front door as people wait to enter this whirling, beeping, sweaty, cheesy circle of Hell. I know for certain what I always suspected.

The Devil is a Rat.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

expect women of color to care for their children

This is a guest post for swpd by August, who writes of herself, "I'm a woman of many privileges: middle class, cissexual, educated, and temporarily able-bodied, just to name a few. My goals in anti-oppression work are to unlearn the ways in which I unknowingly do harm to others every day, to hone my skills in communicating with those who do harm to me, and to arm my daughter with the tools she will need to navigate the intersections of her privileges and oppressions."

I am a woman of color, and a recent interaction between my mother and a white friend of hers has me wondering if there is something else that white people do: expect women of color to care for their children.

My parents have been running a daycare out of their home for over a decade now. They are only licensed to care for 8 children at once, so the loss of even one child is a huge financial blow to them -- an almost 13% household pay cut. Many parents have had siblings in the daycare simultaneously, so if such a family decides to leave (for whatever reason, usually a move), they may remove 2 or 3 children at once. This can be devastating to my folks for obvious reasons, as they can instantly lose a quarter to a third of their income for an unknown amount of time.

After years of experience, my mother (who makes more of the business decisions than my father) has learned that in order to keep themselves from being totally screwed over by these changes, she needs to be proactive in finding clients to replace those who are not in it for the long haul. In other words, once a parent makes it clear that they are currently looking for care elsewhere, my mom starts looking for a replacement immediately and, if necessary, will replace that child regardless of the parents' readiness. She doesn't do this because she likes to, she does it because it means the difference between being able to pay the mortgage or not.

My mother's white friend has expressed her displeasure with this practice. She thinks that my mom should just defer to the time schedule of uncommitted parents, passing up all other opportunities to fill the spot elsewhere, and take the financial hit until they can find another child to fill the spot (which frequently takes months and sometimes even upwards of a year). This would obviously put my parents in a very vulnerable position, but this (white) friend expects my parents to sacrifice their financial well-being in order to take care of these (white) children in order to not inconvenience their (white) parents.

This disagreement reminds me of a situation that I experienced as a teenager. At 17, I babysat two young girls for a white family on a regular basis. My fee for babysitting was $5 per hour for one child, plus $2 per hour for each additional child. I was very upfront about these rates and even had them printed on my business cards. When this family had a third child, they asked me to babysit again when the newborn was a couple months old. At the end of the night, they underpaid me -- they did not add in the additional $2 per hour for the new baby. I corrected them (as nicely as possible, because talking about money made me very uncomfortable) by pointing out the fee scale that was on my business card, one of which was on their refrigerator. They paid me the difference, and while I did sense a bit of awkwardness about it, I attributed it to my own discomfort in talking about money.

A few days later, the mother of the girls left a handwritten letter taped to my parents' front door. It was addressed to me, and it listed all the reasons that I should have been gracious enough to babysit three kids for the price of two, and how dare I be so ungrateful as to ask for more money for more work, and how they could get a better babysitter elsewhere. I had known and sat for this family for years, I loved their children and they loved me. The letter totally blew my mind, not just because of its passive aggressive nature, but because I was essentially being chastised and punished (she told me that she would never ask me to watch her kids again, and they never did) for not watching her infant for free.

I have to wonder if this is a common white tendency, to not just expect women of color to care for their children, but to do so even if it is unfair or leaves us in a vulnerable position.

The babysitting incident has bothered me for years, and the recent incident with my mom has been bothering me a lot as well (even more than it bothers her, I think). My very first reaction was that racism did not play into it, until I remembered reading a comment thread somewhere (I thought it was on swpd, but I couldn't find it again) in which several black women shared their experiences about white people just assuming that they would care for their children, even when those women were invited guests to social events that just happened to have white children present. (I've had that experience myself, actually, even in public situations where the white people are total strangers to me.) None of the black folks in my mom's life seem to expect my mother to make herself vulnerable this way; only white people.

The experience I had with the white family left me hurt and angry, and I suppose I'm still trying to figure out what I did wrong, if anything, to deserve such treatment by a family that I thought had appreciated me.

I would definitely be interested in hearing what swpd readers think of all this, as I'm trying to work through it, and I do wonder if I'm making something out of nothing. It just bothers me so much.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

supposedly forget that obama is black (and think that it's a good thing when that happens)

Maybe it was too late in the day for Chris Matthews to be in front of the teevee cameras tonight, when he expressed his enthusiasm for Obama's delivery of a speech. I don't know what else could explain this bit of uncontrolled nonsense from him.

I mean . . . what kind of white mind is at work here?

Transcript (from TPM):

I was trying to think about who he was tonight, and it's interesting. He is postracial, by all appearances. Y'know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. He's gone a long way to become a leader of this country and passed so much history in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about.

I was watching, I said, "Wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people, and there he is, president of the United States, and we've completely forgotten that tonight, completely forgotten it!"

As TPM notes, Matthews continued: "You don't think in terms of the old tribalism, the old ethnicity. It was astounding in that regard."

He also said: "I shouldn't talk about it but I am. I thought it was profound that way."

It's as if competing common white tendencies in Matthews are at war with each other here. One part of him thinks that he "shouldn't talk about" Obama's race; another part wants to claim that he doesn't see Obama's race; yet another does see his race (otherwise, why mention it?); and still another wants to compliment a black man for presenting himself well, as if he did oh so much better than most black men seem capable of doing, by making white people forget that he's black.

Matthews' comments are such a racial train wreck that I find it difficult to tell just what he's getting at. Who knew that this man wears so many different Freudian slips at the same time?

For one thing, Matthews clearly means to compliment this black president, for (supposedly) making people forget that he's black. Because that way, you see, "we" can see him as America's leader, instead of as a representative of "the old tribalism, the old ethnicity."

If "we" had been watching Obama's State of the Union speech and kept in mind that he is, after all, black, then "we" wouldn't truly see him as America's leader. But then, if that's what Matthews is getting at, what does that say about his estimation of blackness? Of black people, that is, and their abilities and capacities to lead more than just some "tribe" of other black people?

Matthews makes me wonder -- shouldn't it be white people's responsibility to accept that black people can perform just as ably in positions of power as white people can? Rather than it being the responsibility of a black person in a position of power to convince white people that they can perform ably, despite their being black? and further than that, to also magically make white people forget that they're black, because apparently white people just can't get over their hangups about blackness?

At any rate, Matthews did manage to demonstrate that Obama is actually not postracial, if that means that no one, or rather, no white people, notice that he's black anymore. He himself didn't stop noticing that, despite his claims that he did. And anyway, why should anyone stop noticing, or try to forget, that Obama is black?

I think that what Matthews really demonstrated is that despite his own, apparently feverish wish, America itself isn't "postracial" either. And neither are most white minds.

And really, why should they be? Sure, those who make a big deal out of Obama's blackness, even unconsciously (especially unconsciously?) should learn to stop doing so. But the way to do that isn't to attempt the virtually impossible (and the undesirable), by forgetting that he's black.

What do you see in Matthews' comments?

ignore those who point out that they live in a rapacious, white supremacist empire

I'm terribly saddened by the death today of one of my intellectual heroes, Howard Zinn. I'm also saddened to realize that as news of his death travels, most Americans probably won't recognize his name. Zinn's masterwork, A People's History of the United States, opened my eyes, not only to the brutal and racist underpinnings of the country that I live in, but also to the fact that the "country" I live in should be more properly recognized as an empire.

A couple of years ago, Metropoltian Books released a graphic version of Zinn's own process of becoming aware of that fact: A People's History of American Empire. I bought it as soon as I heard about it, and appreciated its reminders about how much blood, suffering, and sacrifice "America" has extracted from racialized others, much of it for the sake of people like me. Here's a video, narrated by Viggo Mortensen, that introduces this book's key ideas (I also included this video in an earlier post, about America as an empire).

Thank you, Howard Zinn, for your awesome yet accessible insight, for your tireless activism, and for your inspiring optimism and faith in the power of us -- the people.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

fail to see their interracial relationships from the other side

This guest post is actually a two-part post by two writers, cl and fromthetropics. cl writes of herself, "I'm an Asian American female graduate student who spends a lot of time thinking about math, race, gender, and human relationships." fromthetropics writes of herself, "I am mixed cultured, and always feel in-between -- both here and there, but neither fully here nor there."


I was traveling through Europe with my boyfriend over the Christmas holidays. At the Prague castle, a ticket agent spoke English with my white boyfriend, and then turned and tried his Japanese with me. When I didn't respond, he asked my boyfriend standing right next to me, "What does the lady speak?" His English wasn't great, his accent heavy, and my boyfriend didn't hear him at first over the buzz, so he tried again, "Japanese?" This time, I spoke up, "No, Chinese." He then tries a few lines of his limited Chinese with me. I just wanted to get past him as quickly as possible, so I obliged sparingly, as it had become clear to me that he was going to hold on to our ticket until I had given him some indication of my ethnicity. Pretending to not hear him hadn't worked.

My boyfriend mused afterward that he thought the guy was nice and sweet. I shook my head and said I didn't think so. When he asked why, I didn't have an answer for him. I didn't know how to begin to explain or phrase even to myself what felt so uncomfortable and racist in that interaction, without sounding hollow or oversensitive. Really, this sort of conversation about race is always difficult to begin.

He's white, and while he's as aware as I might hope for someone to be about racial issues, ultimately, he doesn't see race everywhere like I do. He saw that interaction with the ticket agent as a friendly interaction, an innocent curiosity. I saw it framed in nothing but a racial context. My skin color prompted him to try and use Japanese with me, despite having just used English with my boyfriend. When I chose not to engage, I saw his turning to my boyfriend to ask what I said as him stereotyping me as a quiet, demure Asian woman who spoke broken English at best. I finally spoke up because I hated playing into that stereotype. Responding didn't prove to be a better scenario for me either, but I so often feel trapped by these scenarios, where common courtesy with curious strangers makes me feel like I can't point out how offended I was by that interaction. I'm just too sensitive, they'd say.

And these are the scenarios that my white boyfriend doesn't have to live with.

The question that I've been struggling with recently is how much of my attraction to him is motivated by race. I don't know if I find him more attractive because he's white and dating him makes me seem less ethnic. I'm more white by association. I notice this even in the town that I live in. When I’m there with my sister or my mother, I get asked questions about where I'm from and what my ethnicity is way more often than when I’m out around town with my white friends or my white boyfriend.

Do I find him more attractive than the average Asian American male because he's white, and I have the underlying belief that white is beautiful? How much of my attraction to him has to do with the fact that being with him represents a climb in social status, or that maybe I'm attractive enough to be with a white guy? That I'm attractive enough to "overcome" my Asian-ness? How much of it affects his attraction to me? Is he with me because I'm Asian, but I run counter to his subconscious assumptions about Asian women? Maybe it’s because I'm not what he would've expected an Asian woman to be like, that I'm more interesting and intriguing and unique to him. Would I have been less interesting to him if I had been white?

I want to know how an Asian American female, to whom topics of race and gender are personally important, begins a conversation about these things with her able-bodied, heterosexual, attractive, white boyfriend. How do I begin to explain to him what oppression is like and why these topics are more than just a "passion" for me, that they are more to me than just a fervored interest? How do I explain to someone who's never felt oppression in his life the anger, frustration, and helplessness I feel? How do I explain why this isn't just something that we could agree to disagree on, have differing opinions on?

Race and gender issues are personal to me because they affect my life directly. Should an expression of such anger and frustration be kept to myself or among other people of color, who can empathize and wouldn't take it as accusatory and angry? Or because he's my boyfriend, my partner, are the emotions I experience allowed to be expressed? Though he can't empathize, should he be willing to listen and recognize that he can't empathize? Or is he another white male with whom I have to be careful about how I approach the topic of race or sexism?

Do we just avoid the topic of race altogether?

He gets it in theory. He gets it on paper. But at the end of the day, he doesn't live it. He can say that he doesn't see race when it comes to us dating, that it doesn't cross his mind that we're an interracial couple, but I see race everywhere. I wonder what other people expect when he mentions his girlfriend and an Asian girl shows up. I wonder what they think. I wonder how I come off to other people of color, and I wonder all the time if I'm not more attracted to him because of his status as a white male in this society. Race isn't something that I get to just shelve and pull down every once in a while and think about. I live it and deal with it constantly.

How do other interracial couples navigate these delicate issues of race?



The post on how some white guys fetishize Asian women (and I am sure Asian men too, e.g. in homosexual relationships) was cool and all, but that phenomenon is too obvious and easy to spot. What I really want to get at are the subtle racial nuances that affect interracial relationships, particularly when the guy is white -- so nuanced that he doesn’t even notice it.

I am an ‘Asian’ woman, but mixed cultured. I do not have the choice of not being in a cross-cultural relationship. I want to keep the cultural difference in my choice of partner to a minimum, since I have to deal with it in all other aspects of my life. I am in no way infatuated by the idea of being with someone from a completely different (and thereby seemingly exotic) background. I click best with guys who are either a Westernized Asian* or Asianized Westerner** because they are closest to me in terms of culture. I have been both casually and seriously attracted to guys of all backgrounds, Western(ized) or otherwise. But the guys I've actually dated have been Eurasian or white.

I often question my preference, though. When I am with non-Westernized Asians who are uncomfortable dealing with white people, I wonder if that will become an issue for me. Will I have to retreat into an exclusively Asian world to make things easy for us, or be the one out there dealing with the white world for the both of us? Is my preference a preference for white privilege?

The white guy I dated was already quite aware of racism by the time I had met him. So I thought the whole racial side of things was all sorted out. Little did I realize that it runs a bit deeper and in more nuanced ways.

I hated hearing about the time he lived in Asia. I could sense that he was not fully aware of how white privilege worked in nuanced ways through him and his mates. I could picture the kind of people who would have wanted to befriend him, the kind who see white as ‘desirable,’ and how his white mates would have behaved. The instant celebrity status would have gotten to some of their heads. (Some of their stories corroborated my hunches.)

How do I know all this? I have lived in China, where they either treated me as a Westerner or Japanese. The kind who made the most effort to spend time with me saw these foreign characteristics about me as ‘desirable’. A bunch of us foreigners got invited to a birthday party, and once there realized that we, not the birthday girl, were the main attraction. They treated us well, but I felt uncomfortable that we were invited specifically for our privilege.

But my then partner didn’t seem aware or bothered by this type of nuanced privilege. This mattered to me. It mattered because we might be present in the same space, but we would experience our interaction with others differently -- him with privilege and me without.

It also means that I felt the need to question why I was attracted to him, while he didn’t. Am I attracted to him because he is white? Do I see white as desirable? I’ve been attracted to plenty of Asian guys before, but why have I never dated one? Is it coincidence? I asked these questions while I was with him, and even after. That was in Australia.

While visiting Indonesia recently, those questions became -- So. In. My. Face. White man + Indonesian woman couples abound. With far too many, the power imbalance in which race appeared to play a role was obvious, whether due to the financial implications (white = financially better off than most Indonesians) or because ‘white’ is simply seen as desirable. The latter bothers me because it is so much more nuanced and hidden. A couple of times I approached a white single guy to talk about work with no other intentions whatsoever, and I could sense them pull back, suspicious that I may have other motives, given that so many women before me did. It is hard not to think about race in this context -- when you see it at work all around you.

It is hard for me to not question my attraction when the guy is white. Even when I believe that it is not because he is white, I ask: But does he know this? Does he know that him being white does not matter to me? Or does he think I am just another Asian chick who is starry eyed over white guys? Does he think it is that easy to get me attracted to him?

Why did my former partner say that race doesn’t matter when all three of his girlfriends have been Asian? His brother’s girlfriend is Asian. His (white) best friend also has an Asian girlfriend. Is this pure coincidence? Does it really not matter?

Do white guys not feel the need to question their attraction to Asian women because, as someone in a position of more privilege, they do not have to worry that they are doing it for some apparent gain in status?

If they do not question whether a girl likes them because they are white, how will they know who loves them for who they are, and who loves them for whatever status can be gained from being with a white guy? Or do white men not question such things because they enjoy that extra attention and ego boost they get from being white in Asia?

If they do not know that white privilege runs really deep, how will they know that I like them for who they are, and that I don’t give a shit that they’re white? Will they know that I scrutinize my motives precisely to make sure I don’t shortchange them -- that I do so because I respect and care about them as a man, minus the race qualifier?

* I use this term to differentiate them from those who are also culturally Asian (e.g. born and raised in Asia), though I will sometimes just use ‘Asian’ when it is not necessary to differentiate.

** By ‘Westerner,’ I do not mean specifically Caucasian, though I do tend to meet more Caucasian Westerners than, say, Black Westerners where I live. By ‘Asianized Westerner,’ I mean, for example, Westerners who are interested in Asia, speak an Asian language, and don’t ‘feel white’ regardless of what color they are.

Monday, January 25, 2010

suddenly notice their own nation's poverty

I've been hearing from several sources about another common white tendency that's cropped up lately, in response to requests for aid to Haiti. It seems to be a kind of weird, shifty excuse for refusing to contribute.

One emailer put it this way --


Following the horrifying storm Katrina, many were moved and mobilized to help nationwide. In fact, international assistance arrived for the Katrina refugees. In the wake of the disastrously executed FEMA response, I dealt with many white people that grumbled that they weren't going to send money to Katrina victims, when there were needy in their own neighborhoods.

Today on a social networking site I had a dispute with another white person that said that:

GUESS WHAT? People in YOUR community need your help. Call your local food pantry, homeless shelter, Victims Intervention Program, and Disabled Veterans...they are among the forgotten causes the Hollyweird crowd never thinks to hold telethons for...but they quietly work in your area helping those in need. They need you...r help as much as Haiti; maybe more, as nobody's on TV tugging at your purse strings for THEM.

The only problem? Any other time they are complaining about the same folks in the community as being lazy ne'er do wells that only want a hand out. And that they shouldn't be beholden to help people that make poor choices. They weren't concerned with their "homegrown" (read: American/White) needy...until money and resources were gathered to assist Haiti.

The same could be said about some white people before Katrina. They saw no need to mitigate the suffering within their neighborhoods/cities/states...particularly if the assistance was for people of color that they deemed lazy ne'er-do-wells.

Any insight?

Over at Blackfolks, pradagirl writes in a similar vein,

Lately I've noticed a disproportionate amount of white folk complaining about the humanitarian aide being sent to Haiti. Their main gripe is that there's enough poverty, homelessness etc in this country that we should be helping ourselves as a nation instead of helping the people in Haiti.

Hearing stuff like this really angers me and the more they try to defend this position the more my anger grows. Yes, we do have a lot of issues that we need to deal with as a nation but isn't it our responsibility to help our fellow human beings when such a catastrophic tragedy befalls them?

And one more example, from a comment thread at Abagond about Haiti, where leigh204 writes,

I organized a bake sale with baked goodies costing $3 a pop. We managed to raise over a grand. I heard a co-worker remark how fast the baked goods sold. (We could barely keep up.) Then she remarked that it was sad people only opened their wallets when there was a national disaster and that people should be helping their own first. I replied, “What do you mean by helping our own? We’re helping those who need our help.” She replied, “There are poor, homeless people suffering here, too. You don’t see others opening their wallets for them, do you?” I agreed with her that charity begins at home, but Haitians needed immediate help. She shook her head and said she would rather help the people at home first (Canada). Unbelievable.

So just what is this apparently common white tendency? And what causes it?

I think it's all too easy to dismiss this kind of response to requests for donations to Haiti as a mere excuse from people who won't help out no matter what the disaster. It may be merely that for some people, but I suspect that for most of these "Clean up your own backyard!" types, something else is going on here -- racism.

I think this common white response can be a way of excusing oneself for not doing anything to help poor, specifically black people. In that kind of white mind, troubles that black people have are always their own fault, and that means that no matter what those troubles are, "I myself as a white person shouldn't feel a need to do anything about it." Again, it's an ultimately racist response, because it ignores the larger, ongoing context of de facto white supremacy. Motivations for this response might also go as deep, and as unacknowledged in the white mind, as not wanting to do anything about widespread black problems because that would mean admitting that blacks DON'T bring all their problems on themselves.

"And if that's true," the common white thinking, or maybe feeling, seems to go, "if it's true, that is, that we still live in a racist society, then my being white might mean that I have some connection to black people's problems -- maybe even some responsibility for having helped to cause them. Which would then mean that I have some responsibility for helping to fix them."

All of which is too much for most white people to deal with, especially about themselves, and about their own place within a racist social order. It's so much easier to ignore and forget our vague awareness that black people still don't get an even chance in society, and furthermore, that as a direct consequence of that, we get more than an even chance. Just because we're white. That's the kind of stuff that white people are basically, subtly told they should ignore and forget.

And of course, another part of the white mind that I think is at work here, another common white perception, is something that commenters have repeatedly pointed out on this blog lately -- black and other non-white lives just aren't as valued by white minds and hearts as white lives are. The evidence of that elsewhere is almost endless, from the continued popularity among white people of a racist death penalty, to the Missing White Girl Syndrome, from white indifference to racially disproportionate sentencing and incarceration rates, to the white-framed media's tendency to linger voyeuristically over dead black bodies (which contrasts with its respectful refusal to do so in most cases of dead white bodies).

"But then," some part of the average white mind would say, "Valuing black lives less than white ones? That's a terrible thing to believe! That's RACIST! And I certainly am not a racist! So no, I don't believe that. Of course I value all human lives the same. I'm well aware, thank you, that non-white people are just that, 'people.'"

You'll very rarely get a white person to admit, or even realize, that they value black lives less than white ones. But usually, at some level, they do. As I was trying to get at in this post, white people have been trained to do that. And so, when some part of them doesn't feel that all that money and other forms of aid should be going to help black people in Haiti, they find excuses for not contributing, including this particular "your own backyard" one, about people nearby needing it instead.

Again, I doubt that most white people even realize that they're being racist when they they think and feel that way. They're used to telling black people that their problems are their own fault, and that they need to help themselves and "their own kind." Suddenly being asked to help black people, here or abroad, just doesn't seem right, in part because it doesn't fit with what they've been led by a racist society to generally think and feel about black people.

And so, expressing sudden concern about "the poverty at home" can seem like a legitimate way of refusing to send help over there.

I may be missing something, but I think that's basically why a lot of white people resort to this excuse by way of explaining their refusal to contribute toward aid for Haitians. 

What do you think explains it?

I also recognize that on the other hand, white Americans do often care about, and contribute toward alleviating, poverty in "Africa." Are any of those people the same ones who would use the above excuse, and/or others, by way of refusing to contribute toward earthquake relief in Haiti? If so, what's the difference for them, between contributing to "Africans" and contributing to Haitians?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

obstinately support the racist death penalty

Robin is a twenty-something white female who spends most of her time writing, and occasionally guest-blogging at swpd and elsewhere; her website: She hopes someday to stop showing her privileged butt on a regular basis, and in the meantime, she continually struggles to accept that she's very much a work in progress.

[Disclaimers: Let me make something clear at the outset: this space is not for debating what I call the death penalty in theory. I don't care whether someone is for or against the idea of killing killers. I'm here to discuss white support for the death penalty in practice -- that is, how the death penalty is currently used in real life in America. I'm going to discuss only its use in America, because I don't know anything about how/if the death penalty is used in racist ways elsewhere. (If anyone more educated about the death penalty elsewhere wants to discuss that, please do.) And now, on to the post.]

Among the different racial groups in the U.S., which most supports the death penalty, and why? Which suffers the most from the death penalty, and why?

The most recent data I could find was the Pew Forum's report from 2007  as to the proportion of Americans (both white and PoC) who support the death penalty. [1] In those polls it was 62%, although that number fluctuates a bit from year to year. [2] There is a division along political party lines [3], but here’s the more important division: when it comes to racial support, a fair bit less than half of blacks (40%) support the death penalty, along with just under half of Hispanics (48%), and 49% of those considered "other" (not white, black, or Hispanic). As for whites? Well, a whopping 68% of whites express support for the death penalty. I'd say when more than two in three American whites support something, it’s a pretty clear example of Stuff White People Do.

And what is it they're doing in this case? They're supporting a system of capital punishment that is inherently racist.

In terms of racism, the most common complaint against the capital punishment system is that its implementation is highly disproportionate -- the percentage of blacks in prison is far higher than their percentage of the population. [4] While the overrepresentation = racism equation is a common complaint, it's actually not a valid one; as Tim Wise puts it, it's "a point that means nothing, since incarceration would logically mirror crime rates, not population demographics." [5] So let's look at the crime rates instead. In 2006 in the U.S., of those incarcerated for murder and non-negligent manslaughter, the percentage of blacks was 51%. [6] The question then becomes: why are blacks under-represented among those executed? Why are they only a third of those who are executed [4b], if they have been convicted of committing [7] over half of the murders? The answer to that question reveals the true racism in this system: whether someone is executed has to do with the race of the victim.

The death penalty is primarily used to punish people, especially people of color, for their crimes against white people -- not for their crimes against people of color. From 1976 to Dec 2009, in terms of interracial murders, only 15 executions involved a white murderer and a black victim. [8] Yet there were 245 executions for black murderers with white victims. (Cases that involved multiple victims of different races were not included in those counts.) This is despite the fact that murders are overwhelmingly intra-racial; 93% of black homicides are against other blacks, and 85% of white homicides are against whites. [9]

A number of studies (including one from the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office) conclude that "holding all other factors constant, the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim." [10] A recent Yale University study concluded that "black defendants receive death sentences at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims were white, and minorities who kill whites receive death sentences at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities." [11] A black person who killed another black person just doesn't hold the same interest for America’s white-framed judicial system as a white person who killed a white person. [12]

So let’s retreat from statistics for a moment of speculation: maybe the justice system doesn't care about non-white victims because people of color are seen are expendable. When people of color are considered merely a faceless mass, then one of them dying doesn't seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. White people, on the other hand, are seen as individuals, and so the death of each one of us (assuming those whites fall into the appropriate social classes [13]) is considered more important.

Racism also plays a role in getting a black person from the point of being arrested (whether or not they committed the crime) to being on Death Row. Aside from the issue of potential racial bias and profiling by police and/or victims, there's the problem that District Attorneys (who make the decision to pursue the death penalty or not) are overwhelmingly white. [14] The juries are often racially stacked against black defendants -- in one particularly egregious example, an attorney who had been an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia was caught making a training tape for other attorneys, advising them that "young black women are very bad [on juries],” and "You know, in selecting blacks, you don't want the real educated ones." [15] Another study found that attorneys in Georgia used 83% of their “strikes” to get African-Americans off juries. [14]

A look at exonerations from Death Row also reveals an insidiously racist system. From 1973 to 2009, 139 people have been discovered to be innocent after being convicted of murder and put on Death Row. [16] Of those 139, 71 were black. Black people comprise 51% of those later found innocent, despite being only 42% of those on Death Row. [17]

Lest anyone think I'm writing this because I have some sort of anti-death-penalty axe to grind, I don't. I actually support the death penalty in theory. But it's difficult to understand how anyone can support the death penalty as it's currently practiced, unless they’re being willfully ignorant to the existence and effects of racism. Actually, a quick scan of the pro-death penalty resources shows that to be exactly the case -- people, white people in particular, generally are willfully ignorant to the effects of racism on the Death Penalty.

As one clear example, the primary pro-death-penalty site on the Internet has an "Issues" section. [18] They cover these topics: innocence, life without parole, appeals, juveniles, deterrence, and recidivism. Do you see "racism" on that list? No, I don't either. Also feel free to scan their "Articles of Interest" section -- it's full of articles with titles like:

Wesley Baker is on death row today for the actions of Wesley Baker. "Racial disparity" had nothing to do with it.

A response to an editorial in which Bob Herbert defends a murderer in the name of the race card.

Is there no African-American miscreant whose misdeeds are so vile and contemptible that he cannot become a cause célèbre in black America?

All of which raises a question: how can someone educated be aware of these statistics and still support the system in practice? Well, it's pretty straightforward: they refuse to accept the meaning of the statistics. [19][20] They begin with the same analysis I've done here, and then they throw it out the window as irrelevant; as a writer for the conservative National Review opined, “The proper comparison is not the race of the defendants versus the general population but rather the race of those for whom the death penalty is sought versus those who are death penalty eligible.” [20] Then they typically go further, by making it appear that whites are actually the injured parties in this equation; As another NR writer put it, “capital charges were actually brought less frequently against blacks (79 percent of the time) and Hispanics (56 percent of the time) than against whites (81 percent of the time)”. [19] In other words, they conveniently ignore the fact that the race of the victim is the major reason why the death penalty is pursued or not pursued.

(And as if that wasn't enough, they sometimes go just a little farther and spin it as not just not racist, but actually beneficial to black people! “Finally, it must be noted that, even if a disproportionate number of African Americans are executed, the beneficiaries of the executions are likely to be disproportionately black, too.” [19])

Prosecutors seek the death penalty far less often in cases where the victims are people of color, and far more often in cases where the victims are white. I'd say that the devaluation of the lives of people of color, and the use of capital punishment to disproportionately punish people of color for killing whites, is quite clearly racist. As well, racism clearly infects every level of the justice system, and black people on Death Row are statistically more likely to be later found innocent than whites.

Nevertheless, a majority of white people continue to support this system in practice. I have to wonder if that’s because they don't know these facts, or if it’s because they don't want to know these facts?


[1] . The stats found there agreed with what I found in Gallup polls from 2005 ( ) - while I am unsure about the Pew Forum's potential bias (it claims to be a "non-partisan, non-advocacy organization"), Gallup is generally considered fairly reputable.
[2] Both Gallup and the Pew Forum confirm that since 2001, support for the death penalty has fluctuated between 62% to 69%, but has been stable within that range for almost a decade. In other words, it’s safe to say in any given recent year, roughly two out of three Americans agree with the death penalty.
[3] According to the Gallup report, 80% of Republicans (commonly considered the "conservatives") support it, along with 65% of Independents. It may or may not surprise you that over half (58%) of Democrats (commonly considered the "liberals") also supported it. When the questioning is changed to self-described "conservative"/"liberal", 74% of conservatives support it and 54% of liberals.
[4] The over-representation argument works something like this: Of those 37 inmates actually executed nationwide in 2008 [4a], twenty were white and seventeen were black. Counting all inmates that have been executed from 1976 until December 2009 [4b], 57% of those were white; 34% were black; 7% were Hispanic; 2% were other. That may look at first glance like more white people are being executed than black people -- and that is true, on a purely numbers level. However, as of the most recent Census (2000), blacks make up only 12.3% of the U.S. population [4c]. Yet they account for a third of those who receive capital punishment. (Of course this is part of a much larger discussion, which is that the U.S. incarceration system itself is inherently racist, but that's a subject of enough depth to merit its own post.) 75% of Americans consider themselves white according to that Census, but whites account for only 57% of executions.
[7] I say "convicted of committing" rather than "committed", because while the conviction rate is 51%, we don't know how many of those are actually guilty. The facts are that there's a long historical context for arresting blacks for crimes they didn't commit, mistakes in reporting, mistakes on the part of eyewitnesses, racial bias on the part of police, etc.
[13] Obviously the deaths of, for example, street-level sex workers (for one example) aren't taken seriously, regardless of their race. Class issues also come into play as well.
[18] / Note that I call it the "primary pro-death penalty site" because it's the first listing that comes up under a Google search for "pro death penalty." which leads me to believe it's the most linked-to site on the topic, as well as being the first pro-death penalty site that comes up when doing a more general Google for "death penalty information."

Friday, January 22, 2010

secretly fear that one day, the tables will be turned

A valued reader recently sent me this photo. I'd seen it before, but I can't remember where. Nor do I know the story behind it.

Does anyone here know about it?

That's one of those thousand-word pictures, isn't it? Words of my own can never do it justice. Actually, "poetic justice" are two words that do seem to fit, until I look more closely, and see that the black hospital staff are trying to save this Klansman, rather than hasten his demise.

The title of this blog post suggests what I see evoked by that image, and also by the one below, which was left on a wall by the British artist, Banksy. Both of these images look to me like fragments from a fevered white dream. Or maybe, from some Surrealist's effort to represent the depths of the collective white American psyche.

I don't think it's just the KKK and their ilk that have that fear -- a fear that some day, the white race will get its just deserts. I also don't think all that many white individuals are walking around with that fear, at least consciously. I do think, though, that a more collective white racial fear of that sort exists, however it is that things like that work.

But that's just what comes to mind for me when I ponder these images. I'm sure that if they represent anything to other viewers, they represent differently, depending on the person.

Banksy left this artwork on the wall of a gas station, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. The image on the left is his; the image on the right is what was left of it, after some locals took offense.

I imagine that the people who spray-painted over Banksy's art were white, but I can't be sure of that.

I wonder what they felt when they saw it? What drove them to blacken it so thoroughly?

Apparently, some locals actually did like Banksy's image. The African American man who owns the gas station that Banksy chose, for instance.

What are some of the thousand words evoked for you by either or both of these images?

And/or, if you'd like to address it -- do you think there's such a thing as a collective white psyche (or consciousness, or unconscious)?

If so, what do you suppose is in there?

Update: As several readers pointed out, the first image is from an old ad campaign:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

blame their accusers instead of themselves

This is a guest post for swpd by Eurasian Sensation, who writes of himself, "I'm from Melbourne, Australia, and I'm a little bit white and a little bit Indonesian. I'm both an insider and an outsider in two cultures, and I guess that gives me an interest and insight into how cultures connect and clash. This is the basis for my blogging -- it's a look at various expressions of culture and ethnicity, sometimes serious, sometimes not."

I've been noticing a prevalent tactic to deflect accusations of racism among white folks here in Australia recently. And it's a clever move, too; it allows them to not only avoid facing up to the uncomfortable reality, but to come out of the exchange feeling morally superior to whoever made the accusation.

But first, a little context. In case you haven't been following, Australia in recent months has been the subject of considerable criticism about incidents of a racial nature. Most notable has been the worrying rate of assaults towards Indian students and people of South Asian descent, which has generated much heat in the Indian media and posed the question about whether Australia is a racist nation.

Our credentials as a multicultural utopia were also questioned recently following the "Jackson Jive" skit on a variety show in which a group performed in blackface, which caused offence back in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.

In both cases, a very similar white strategy has arisen in media and public discourse, to defend Australia's reputation. It basically involves a diversion -- a shift of attention away from Australia and onto whoever is making the criticism.

In relation to the condemnation that emanated from the U.S. regarding the blackface performance, the most common response on talkback radio and in newspaper comments was to condemn the U.S. as being worse. The following are from readers of Brisbane's Courier Mail:

i recall Robert Downey JR dressing as a african american man, with make-up and all, in a new movie called "tropic thunder". I cant remember any big stink getting kicked up about that. Maybe America should stop pointing fingers our way and deal with their own country

Posted by: Ben of Have a look at yourself USA 11:01am October 10, 2009

Americans are so ignorant and arrogant. The whole world is supposed to be in tune with thier cultural and historical guilt. Australians ... did not kidnap and enslave african negroes, Americans did.

Posted by: Didums of Brisbane 5:18pm October 09, 2009

Boo hoo! I've just seen footage of Harry Connick with blackened face portraying a Baptist preacher. Pot - kettle, pardon the pun!

Posted by: Danny Brown of Brisbane 3:22pm October 09, 2009

See how it's done?

By focusing on the faults of the accuser (America and Harry Connick, Jr.), these Courier-Mail readers avoid having to actually question whether anything was wrong with the blackface performance.

Interestingly, it doesn't just apply to something the accuser is currently doing, but also to anything they have ever done in the past. They invoke an institution that died out 150 years ago (slavery), and something Harry Connick, Jr. did in 1996 (which incidentally was entirely different in context to a bunch of guys wearing shoepolish). So a past act of racism forever cancels out any right to accuse anyone else; there is no possibility of someone doing something racist but then learning from that mistake.

When applied to a nation or other grouping of people (i.e. "Americans"), this tactic also makes everyone in that group responsible for whatever some parts of that group may have done. So Harry Connick, Jr. had no right to make comments on Australian racism towards black people, because people from his country once owned slaves and conducted lynchings. Of course, Harry Connick, Jr. never owned slaves or conducted lynchings, but that's an inconvenient truth. What is most important is to discredit him and his country and thus invalidate their right to criticise us.

In regard to the criticism from India, the common white response has been very similar. Rather than question whether they may have a point, just draw attention to India's faults instead. Alan Howe, a columnist in the country's most read newspaper, summed it up in his column, written in response to the angry Indian reaction to the stabbing death of a Punjabi student in Melbourne:

Indians are a riot. Indeed, there are about 60,000 riots reported in India each year. It boasts it is the world's largest democracy, but that "democracy" is very much a work in progress, and the progress is slow.

Much of the country still has well-populated pockets of feudal brutality, deadly caste war, and murderous religious conflict. Indians still carry out so-called honour killings, an unpleasant business in which concerned male family members, worried about the class, religion, background, or maybe just the look of a girl's fiance or husband, brutally kill one or both for bringing shame upon them...

Nitin Garg's death is a tragedy. For him, his family in Punjab, his friends, and for our community. We don't know yet who killed him. It probably was an opportunistic robbery gone wrong, but he may have been killed by someone out to harm an Indian. He may have even been killed by an Indian. They have form, home and away.

So let's solve the crime and get the facts. Let's not jump to any conclusions. Well, maybe one: Australia is a safer and more tolerant country than India will ever be.

Got that? So if Indians are a violent and degenerate people, and many bad things happen in India, therefore Indians have no right to comment on violence or racism in Australia. Likewise, Americans cannot criticise Australia for racism because America is racist.

A number of old sayings spring to mind here. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Or, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." (Clearly, stone-throwing was one of the most pressing issues affecting our ancestors.)

And there is certainly something to those old chestnuts. As an Australian, I admit it is a bit strange hearing criticism from the US about our attitudes to black people, as if slavery never existed. I would hope that the Americans who condemned the offending blackface skit would at least take a moment to reflect on their own nation's sticky record on race, for context.

Nevertheless, the "clean up your own backyard" mentality is extremely limiting, and in a sense hypocritical. If Australians respond to American criticism by citing American racism, they are in essence criticising the US and ignoring the mess in Australia's own "backyard". It also means that no one ever has the moral authority to criticise anyone else. Because no person, and no society, is perfect in every way, and every society has a problem with racism and violence to some degree.

Hence, the spotlight is taken away from the initial problem, and instead focuses on the alleged hypocrisy of the critic. So white people never have to ask themselves the hard questions about their own racism. They never have to bother with being introspective about their prejudices. And thus racism continues and thrives, because no one addresses it. In the case of the Indian students, this tactic may even increase the level of racism and violence against them; it effectively labels them hypocrites and troublemakers, and fuels the flames of hatred and xenophobia even further.

But of course, in the white Australian psyche, whether some Indians get attacked is not really that important. What is more important is making sure no one dares to call us racist.

So how should Australia, or any other country for that matter, measure its performance as a society?

Do we look around for the worst aspect of someone else, and use that as a yardstick to rate ourselves? Should we compare our record on race to the U.S., whose history of treatment towards non-white people is arguably one of the most shameful of any nation? And in doing so, should we conveniently ignore the positive things the U.S. has accomplished in this area?

Should we compare ourselves to India -- an enormous nation wracked by poverty and longstanding ethnic, class and religious divisions -- and pat ourselves on the back that our small and wealthy country does not have as many problems?

Do we really want to turn this into a pissing contest over who is less racist?

The thing is, in that kind of contest, no matter who wins, everybody loses.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

feel disappointed because Obama apparently isn't a magic negro

In the following "Daily Show" clip, Jon Stewart and "Senior Black Correspondent" Larry Wilmore assess the first year of Obama's presidency. Or rather, they assess common reactions to Obama's first year. Stewart first satirizes the common and reductive cable-news tendency to offer analyses that consist of even less than one word -- that is, a letter, as in a grade.

I'm more interested in Larry Wilmore's segment (at 02:25), in which he satirizes common white expectations of a heroically positioned black man -- expectations, that is, that Obama would be another iteration of an old Hollywood standby, the Magic Negro.

I do agree that with Wilmore's satiric point: that a lot of white liberals had their hopes for Obama primed by the cultural pervasiveness of this racial stereotype, and that part of their current disappointment in Obama is a realization that he hasn't proven to be another Magic Negro.

So I'm interested, as Wilmore seems to be, in common white reactions to Obama as a black man. But I'm also interested in common white reactions to Larry Wilmore, as a black man analyzing those common white reactions to Obama as a black man. More about that below the clip . . .

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
The First 364 Days 23 Hours

I first saw this clip at Gawker, which has long struck me as a place that assumes its readership is comprised primarily of media-savvy, relatively hip, mostly white people (and maybe even people who, although they openly hate "hipsters," often actually fit the hipster profile). In Gawker's post about this clip, the main point of which is that the "The Daily Show" writers "still haven't gotten a good bead on" Obama, Wilmore's segment is briefly described -- and not analyzed:

Larry Wilmore followed and did his thing, which is basically: Talking to white people like they are all racist. This was pretty funny too!

I don't know about you, but given the general tone at Gawker, that description reads to me like sarcasm. Sarcasm that really means, "Wilmore did his same old shtick, which really wasn't all that funny, because it's actually offensive. It's reverse racism, because come now, not all white people are racist! Who does this black man think he is, implying things like that about white people?" And so on.

I think that as before, Jon Stewart does play "typical white guy" here to Larry Wilmore's "racially wise black guy." Stewart again acts rather cowed and frightened by Wilmore, as well as disappointed. He becomes disappointed because although he's feeling sort of racially vulnerable, he still is listening respectfully to what Wilmore has to say. As a result, his typical and naive white liberal hopes -- in this case, in Obama -- are being exposed as such, and then dashed yet again.

In other words, I think that Wilmore's satiric insights -- in this case, about a common white-liberal tendency to let Obama's non-threatening blackness evoke the hoary Magic Negro stereotype -- are brilliant. And Stewart and his writers seem to agree; I think they're basically providing a platform of sorts that makes the insights offered by Wilmore available to those white people willing to grapple with them.

As for Stewart's ongoing role in the brief, staged dialogues that he sometimes has with Wilmore, I think he may be enacting how he and/or his writers think the show's largely white liberal audience should receive Wilmore's insights into their thought and behavior. That is, humbly, and respectfully. Even if, for a lot of white people in such a dialogue, that can be uncomfortable, and even scary.

I wonder, though, how many white viewers actually do grasp Wilmore's deeper and (for them) newer insights. Is the brief Gawker assessment above of Wilmore -- which takes up only a tiny part of their assessment of this two-part segment -- typically dismissive of black insights like those offered by Wilmore? If so, that wouldn't surprise me. After all, white people, even well-intentioned liberals, aren't used to listening respectfully to black people talking about race. Especially if instead of talking about themselves, they're talking about white people.

The Gawker assessment of this segment was written by Adrian Chen, whose name suggests that he's not white. Nevertheless, I think his assessment of this "Daily Show" segment, in its basic dismissal of what Wilmore actually had to say, reflects a common white reaction to black insights into common white ways.

Also interesting in these terms is the reaction to Wilmore of the show's studio audience (also largely white, I assume, which is not to say that people of color don't also enjoy "The Daily Show"). An especially good line of Wilmore's, for instance, seems to fall on deaf ears ("[Obama's] just suffering from the hard bigotry of high expectations!"). Listening carefully to the laughter and other audience reactions again makes me wonder just how willing, let alone ready, white people in general are to listen to black observations about whiteness. And of course, recent conversations in the comment threads on this blog have made me wonder the same thing. Wilmore is basically functioning as a comedian here, but like many black comics before him (and like Paul Mooney, for example [nsfw], today), he has serious revelations to offer white people about themselves.

Gawker is a popular site; at this writing, a day after that piece on the "Daily Show" was posted, it's already been viewed over 8,000 times. So far, it only has 18 comments, two of which address Wilmore's segment -- how do you read them? Do they seem to be taking Wilmore's serious comedy seriously?

Yeah, it seems lots of people were disappointed that Obama was not the "Magic Negro" that they were hoping for.

Next time, Dems, you need to run Morgan Freeman - he's GOD.


Oh - folks got the sads now 'cause he doesn't have a magic wand to fix everything right away?

Please. His presidency has managed to restore a certain amount of confidence in the US around the world. Eventually, this should be more effective than any Homeland Security regulation imagineable.


I cannot tell a lie. I really thought he was magic.

Damn you, privileged, white upbringing!

Oh wait, there is a fourth comment there, one that I agree with (the part about Wilmore, that is; I don't consider Colbert's satiric persona an annoying one-trick pony):

This Larry Wilmore needs his own show. Sorry, but Colbert is a one trick pony who's act is grating and one dimensional. I want a Wilmore show instead.

But then, if Wilmore did have a show, and he continued to talk to white Americans like this, I don't think it would last very long. That's because white Americans in general aren't ready to listen to a black man's insights into their common ways of being.

[And by the way, again, I'm not saying that people of color don't watch and enjoy "The Daily Show" -- I'm sure many do. I'm interested in common white reactions to it, and especially to Larry Wilmore. I'm also not addressing here Obama's declining popularity more generally, so no comments, please, about what that has to do with his politics, unless your comment clearly has something to do with stuff white people do.]

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

blithely live relatively comfortable lives while others are suffering

Here's something that I was thinking about today:

What is it that allows white people to blithely enjoy comfortable lives, while others lead less enjoyable lives just because they weren't lucky enough to be born white? How can we white people so easily ignore that difference?

"White privilege" describes advantages that are afforded to white people simply because they're white. And the thing about privilege is, it only works when others don't have it. I think that's another way of putting what it is that those of us who are white too easily ignore.

I think one explanation for this callousness is that in a way, whiteness does something that having extra money also does -- it insulates people. Both can wrap people in a sort of cozy, protective bubble, and desensitize them to the feelings and sufferings of those outside the bubble. I know my whiteness has done that to me. And I think that the money my nation has (including that which it has long been expropriating from places like Haiti), and thus the money that I have and can earn as an average, white citizen of that nation, has done that to me too.

Of course, real money is necessary to fully enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Even if you're white, having very little money can mean that life is far less than comfortable and enjoyable. Yes, being white can make it easier to obtain real money, but that doesn't mean that all white people have enough money to lead fun and comfortable lives, just because they're white. And yet, simply because of their race, they often have less trouble doing so than those who aren't white. And more to the point, they can easily ignore the problems of those who, simply because they're not white, have more trouble doing so.

Such thoughts, about our callousness towards those less fortunate than ourselves, were inspired for me yesterday by hearing about a luxury cruise ship that was headed for Haiti when the earthquake struck. The ship's owners decided to go ahead with a planned beach landing, including all the attendant festivities, despite the nearness of the beach to the devastation and suffering in Haiti.

What kind of monstrosity is this? And what kind of monster have I become, if I refuse to recognize and struggle with parallels in this story to my own life?

Somehow, this story feels like an allegory for my privileged existence. And focusing on the passengers who stayed on the ship and refused to take part in the sun and fun, or on the crew's limited Haiti relief efforts, and then saying, "Well yes, that's what I would do too," seems too easy.

As the Guardian reports,

Sixty miles from Haiti's devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.

The 4,370-berth Independence of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean International, disembarked at the heavily guarded resort of Labadee on the north coast on Friday; a second cruise ship, the 3,100-passenger Navigator of the Seas is due to dock.

The Florida cruise company leases a picturesque wooded peninsula and its five pristine beaches from the government for passengers to "cut loose" with watersports, barbecues, and shopping for trinkets at a craft market before returning on board before dusk. Safety is guaranteed by armed guards at the gate.

The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was "sickened".

"I just can't see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water," one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.

"It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving," said another. "I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now."

Some booked on ships scheduled to stop at Labadee are afraid that desperate people might breach the resort's 12ft high fences to get food and drink, but others seemed determined to enjoy their holiday. "I'll be there on Tuesday and I plan on enjoying my zip line excursion as well as the time on the beach," said one.

The company said the question of whether to "deliver a vacation experience so close to the epicentre of an earthquake" had been subject to considerable internal debate before it decided to include Haiti in its itineraries for the coming weeks.

"In the end, Labadee is critical to Haiti's recovery; hundreds of people rely on Labadee for their livelihood," said John Weis, vice-president. "In our conversations with the UN special envoy of the government of Haiti, Leslie Voltaire, he notes that Haiti will benefit from the revenues that are generated from each call. . .

"We also have tremendous opportunities to use our ships as transport vessels for relief supplies and personnel to Haiti. Simply put, we cannot abandon Haiti now that they need us most."

"Friday's call in Labadee went well," said Royal Caribbean. "Everything was open, as usual. The guests were very happy to hear that 100% of the proceeds from the call at Labadee would be donated to the relief effort."

Forty pallets of rice, beans, powdered milk, water, and canned foods were delivered on Friday, and a further 80 are due and 16 on two subsequent ships. When supplies arrive in Labadee, they are distributed by Food for the Poor, a longtime partner of Royal Caribbean in Haiti.

Royal Caribbean has also pledged $1m to the relief effort and will spend part of that helping 200 Haitian crew members.

The company recently spent $55m updating Labadee. It employs 230 Haitians and the firm estimates 300 more benefit from the market. The development has been regarded as a beacon of private investment in Haiti; Bill Clinton visited in October. Some Haitians have decried the leasing of the peninsula as effective privatisation of part of the republic's coastline.

Monday, January 18, 2010

mourn the loss of martin luther king, jr., and celebrate his legacy

On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy broke the news of Martin Luther King's death to a largely African American crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a campaign stop during Kennedy's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy himself was killed two months later (transcript and another video below).

Ladies and Gentlemen -- I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because. . . I have some -- some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King -- yeah, that's true -- but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much.

Of course, in so many ways, MLK lives on . . .

Jay Smooth (at Ill Doctrine)
"Ten OTHER Things Martin Luther King Said"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

offer white apologetics (instead of just apologizing)

This is a guest post for swpd by Willow, who writes of herself, "I'm a Midwestern divinity student and geek who believes that trashy science fiction B-movies are the key to surviving grad school. I'm white, Christian, feminist, disabled, and (as someone once said on some TV show) 'twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag.'"

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

If a white person participates in anti-racism discussions long enough and seriously enough, ze will mess up eventually.* We are all products of a racist society. And when that happens, we need to apologize to the person or people we hurt.

White people tend to be very, very bad at this.

Actually, many of us are very quick to say the two words “I’m sorry.” But it rarely ends there. White people, especially, like to keep talking. What are we saying? I did a bit of research, by which I mean I read comments threads on a few blogs. I came to the conclusion that we are not, in fact, apologizing.

I present my research results to you as the "White Apologetics Drinking Game," located in this post's first comment. Credit for the idea goes to Star Wars fandom, RVCBard, and Witchsistah; in proper blogosphere fashion I also offer it in bingo card form (The drinking game is longer due to bingo-card format constraints).

The dictionary I have defines apology as “an expression of remorse for having wronged another person.” That's not what white people tend to offer when they've messed up in a discussion on race, which is more like “a sentence or paragraph beginning with the words ‘I’m sorry.’”

What I really see white people doing on anti-racist blogs is more like apologetics: “an excuse or a defense.” Instead of genuinely expressing remorse for hurting another human being, white people tend to focus on justifying their actions, or on how the accusation makes them feel.

I call this common white behavior "White Apologetics," and I'll say flat out what the problem is here:

White Apologetics supports white supremacy.

Here's how that usually happens:

1. White Apologetics focuses the conversation on the white person.

Suddenly, the conversation is not about stuff white people do [to hurt people of color], but rather how the white person feels about it, or why the white person did it, but is still a good person, really.

But it shouldn't be about us. It should be about the person of color, whom we've just hurt.

2. White Apologetics shifts the blame to POC.

Direct examples of this shift include “I’m sorry you took it that way,” or “You misunderstood me.” Yes, sometimes we state things badly, or don’t convey sarcasm well. But misunderstanding our intent is not the fault of the person of color. The peoblem remains: a white person has hurt a person of color. And somehow that's the POC’s fault? This is not Earth logic.

3. White Apologetics places an extra burden on POC.

White people tend to think, oddly enough, that when it comes to matters of race, our intentions matter more than the outcome of our actions. 

Let me ask you this -- if you say to me, “Willow, I didn’t mean to run over your dog with my car,” is my dog any less dead?

In conversations on race with POC, anything like “What I meant was...” is basically saying, “Dear [specific POC], why didn’t you read my mind?” In many such cases, it's also saying, “Why can’t you stay calm when discussing situations that negatively impact your life every single day?”

4. Still need motivation? White Apologetics makes you a Well-Intentioned White Liberal (WIWL).

White Apologetics is all about appearances. The person trying to apologize? Doesn’t actually care about the person ze hurt. The white person only cares that everyone reading understands that ze really, truly is not racist. It’s not about being an ally. It’s about looking like one.

So, I have a few suggestions for what to do the next time you mess up:

1. Do understand that when a POC asks you to apologize, you probably do need to apologize (not necessarily, but there is an excellent chance).
2. Do read Tami’s fantastic explanation, “When Allies Fail.”
3. Do reflect on how you might have offended the POC, and do this reflection on your own (instead of blurting it out amidst a conversation on race -- that's an example of something called derailment).
4. If you still don’t understand, ask. But give it a shot first.
And if you do ask...
5. ...Don’t explain why you said what you said or did what you did.6. Don’t blame the POC.
7. Don’t talk about how you feel.
8. Don’t demand forgiveness.
9. Do try with everything in you not to do it again. You might.
10. Do reread your comment before you post it to make sure it isn’t all about you.
11. Do understand that messing up does not make you a bad person.

In closing, I ask you to remember this: White Apologetics is a privilege. For white people, apologies to POC are usually about keeping up appearances, about looking good.

However, for many people of color, apologies are a matter of survival.

As Zara writes on this thread,

My "stock thought" when I talk race with white people -- well, I guess in my case it's a stock action -- is to apologize. Over and over and over.[...] I am always aware that I could lose any devotion or affection from my white friends and mentors by saying the wrong thing about race -- so when I talk race with white people, I shove excuses and apologies in there anywhere I can to make it easier for them to stomach. But here's the thing: I'M NOT SORRY.

Remember that. And then think about how you could offer a better apology, better than the common white non-apology that you're probably feeling inclined to give.


Guidelines for discussion in the Comments

I have asked Macon to monitor this comment thread carefully to avoid WP apologizing for previous White Apologetics -- especially a thread for this post, which is, ya know, about those White Apologetics.

Fellow white people: are there elements of your behavior that might trigger POC to feel a need to apologize when ze has not, in fact, done anything wrong? How can you change these? (Remember, no White Apologetics!)

Any additions to the drinking game?

Finally, I'm just another struggling, aspiring, wannabe white ally -- am I right about all of this?

*‘Ze’ and ‘zir’ are gender-neutral pronouns

Friday, January 15, 2010

donate money without knowing where it really goes (haiti thread)

I've often watched privileged people make themselves feel a little better about the relative advantages they have by donating money to various "causes." Some big-name organization will come along soliciting donations, and because the privileged person recognizes the big-name, they feel safe giving money to it. Or rather, they think, giving money through it. Because they've heard the big non-profit's name before, they feel assured that the money will get to the people in need that the organization claims to be helping.

Trouble is, many of these big-name organizations don't end up giving all that much of the donated funds to the people who need it. The organizations themselves are sometimes too big, with many internal expenses, including in some cases enormous "compensation packages" for upper-level management. In some cases, "non-profit" is a misnomer.

But some potential donors know about this problem, and they don't want to give money merely to make themselves feel better. They want more of their donated money to go to the people they're trying to help. How do these donors find less renowned, but actually more efficient charitable organizations?

One way to start is to ask people you think would probably know -- many of the readers of this blog, for instance.

As we all know, a crisis of unimaginably horrific proportions has hit the people of Haiti. Can you recommend charitable organizations that are more likely to get most of the donations they receive to to the people there?

If so, it would also be helpful to tell us briefly, if you can, why you know a non-profit or two is reliable in this sense, or to provide an explanatory link or two.

This is also an open thread on Haiti -- what else have you noticed about recent events, including the media coverage and the reactions of people around you, in terms of race and privilege?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

define blackness

This is a guest post for swpd by thesciencegirl, a 20something medical and graduate student living in Chicago, IL. She describes herself as biracial, having both black and Italian-American heritage. Although her professional focus is in science and medicine, she has a long-held personal interest in understanding and combating racism and other forms of prejudice.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is in the news (again) for saying something wildly inappropriate. In an Esquire interview, he was quoted as saying,

I’m blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up.

It’s clear what Blago’s conception of blackness is: poor, shoe-shinin’, not whatever Barack Obama is. So often the only view of blackness that whites have is only reflective of one segment of the black population, and even that segment has been reduced to a stereotype: poor, uneducated, inner-city, inarticulate, from broken families, criminal, etc. Rarely is there open white acknowledgment of the black middle class, of healthy black families, or of a wider range of interests and styles beyond hip-hop culture. And then there are all of the character traits (or lack thereof) assigned to blackness, and this is most telling in how white people react to black individuals who counteract their ideas of blackness. “You’re so articulate/clean/intelligent/pretty/educated/etc for a black person.” Or “you’re not really black.”

Remember VP Joe Biden’s comment during the 2008 presidential election about Obama?

I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.

It often seems as though whites are heavily invested in the idea of a black monolith. They can easily conceive of diversity within their own ranks, but not amongst black people.

So, my preliminary questions are these:

How is blackness defined by whites? By blacks? By others?

Why do you think that this narrow definition exists?

How is a limited definition of blackness damaging to black people?

How do you define blackness?
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